Updated: Jul 23, 2020
Editor's note: College Baseball Nation is joined by guest writer, Riley Zayas, for coverage of the Texas Collegiate League. Riley Zayas is a high school freshman and freelance journalist from Round Rock, Texas. He began his journalism career as a Sports Illustrated Kid reporter and has since become a regular contributor to Horns Illustrated, covering Texas Longhorn sports. His work also includes Fellowship of Christian Athletes publications, his personal blog 360 Sports, and Sports Spectrum, a national christian sports magazine and website. He is passionate about all things sports, and can be followed on Twitter at @ZayasRiley.
Jackson Ryan could not believe the news.
Baseball would be played after all at The Dell Diamond. It would not be the hometown minor league team, the Round Rock Express, in action, though. Instead, it would be a different brand of players. A different group of opponents. And a new name. Taking the field would not be Triple AAA players, one call away from the big leagues. It would be college players, spending the summer honing their skills and fighting for a chance to make it to pro ball.
“My first initial reaction was ‘It’s really good we’re having this league and expanded teams in this league so these college kids will be able to play’,” said Ryan, who is a former pitcher at the University of Mary Hardin Baylor and will be a student assistant coach for the Round Rock Hairy Men. “Most of their seasons were only about 15 games long this year, and talking to different college coaches that I know, it is a good deal to be able to have these guys play and get in some innings, games and at-bats.
The Round Rock Hairy Men are one of ten teams set to play in the Texas Collegiate League (TCL) this summer, which will kick off on June 30.
When President and Founder of the Texas Collegiate League Uri Geva heard the news about mass cancellations across the world of sports in March due to the Covid-19 pandemic, he had to be wondering about the future of the TCL. After all, his league, which had played its inaugural season in 2004, had been gaining more and more popularity as each season went by. It had started as a league based out of the Dallas metroplex, but had now shifted to be based more in the southeast, with Bryan, Texas, serving as headquarters. Despite odds being stacked against the possibility of having a season, Geva expanded his league for the 2020 season, taking advantage of the players who lost out on opportunities to play in premier wood-bat leagues such as the Cape Cod League, Northwoods League and the Golden State league, all of which were cancelled along with several more.
In addition to the four existing teams; the Brazos Valley Bombers, Acadiana Cane Cutters, Victoria Generals, and Texarkana Twins, six others, such as the Hairy Men, will be added as temporary expansion teams, giving minor league stadiums across Texas and Oklahoma the chance to host baseball this summer, especially as a minor league season appears quite unlikely. Tim Jackson, who is the General Manager for the Round Rock Express and the Hairy Men, says the idea for minor league teams to start temporary TCL teams for 2020 came from some of their “counterparts”, the teams in San Antonio and Amarillo, who are both owned by the Elmore Group. Working with the TCL, they then recruited other teams in Texas and Oklahoma.
“They approached us saying ‘Hey, there’s a chance to have a temporary franchise for this year as we continue to not know a status on the minor league season’,” said Jackson. “They put it in front of us, and I knew a little bit about the league from playing in it when I was in college at Baylor. Obviously for us it has been a devastating time financially so we had to make sure it penciled out, and then we dove in through phone calls and zoom meetings and discussed everything that would go into it. “
“As we all cope with the changing landscape in sports in 2020, it is a true honor for all of our ownership groups to team up with these great operators from Triple & Double-A minor league baseball to help propel the TCL forward as one of the best summer wood-bat leagues in the country.” -Uri Geva, President of the TCL
The Hairy Men will play in Round Rock at the home of the Triple AAA Express and San Antonio, which was upped to Triple AAA status for 2020, will be home to the Flying Chanclas. These two, along with Brazos Valley, Acadiana, and Victoria, will make up the South division. In the north division, Amarillo will have two teams, the Sod Dogs and Sod Squad, both teams named derived from the local Double AA team, the Sod Poodles. Both will split time at HODGETOWN stadium. The Tulsa Drillers will be farthest north, as Oklahoma’s lone team while the Frisco Roughriders will take on the same name as the Double AA team that plays in the Dallas suburb. Texarkana will round out the group of northern teams.
“As we all cope with the changing landscape in sports in 2020, it is a true honor for all of our ownership groups to team up with these great operators from Triple & Double-A minor league baseball to help propel the TCL forward as one of the best summer wood-bat leagues in the country,” said Geva in a press release issued by the TCL.
He is not kidding. A simple look at any roster is evidence of that. Collegiate Baseball Freshman All-American outfielder Jared McKenzie from Baylor will play for Round Rock, TCU’s Connor Shepherd, a 2019 All-Big 12 infielder, will play for San Antonio, and Dallas Baptist’s Dan Pruitt, a 2019 MLB Draft pick, will star at first base for Frisco. Those are just a few of the college stars that will join the ranks for the TCL this summer.
While the teams are often made up of players from the local areas, a diverse group of college teams are represented. In fact, according to the league’s website, over 100 universities have players in the league, from powerhouse programs such as Texas A&M and TCU, to JUCO schools like Paris JC and Wharton County JC. In 2020, several power five conference teams will be represented such Texas A&M, who will have four playing for Brazos Valley. Ole Miss, who finished the abbreviated season ranked at No. 1 by Collegiate Baseball, has Drew McDaniel playing for Acadiana. LSU also will be represented on Acadiana’s team. Baylor will be represented on multiple teams while players from northern schools such as Oregon State and West Virginia will be spending their summers in the Lone Star state. Additionally, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, TCU, Washington State ad Arizona State will all be represented.
As with many summer leagues, players representing smaller D1 programs will also be in attendance. Some of those teams with a significant number of players are Incarnate Word, UT-San Antonio, Northwestern State and Texas State. Schools from all over the country have players who will be improving their skills this summer in the TCL. In the case of the Texarkana Twins, ballplayers from northeastern schools such as Lehigh, Akron and Murray State will be joining the team. As Jackson points out as well, even if the players are not D1, the level of talent each team is recruiting is far from subpar, creating for a tight battle in the division standings from start to finish. It will closely resemble a typical college season in the sense that every single game matters. Each win will put a team closer to making the playoffs, while a loss could greatly set them back.
“The quality of baseball is going to be kids who are playing at the D1 level, and even the lower levels, such as junior college, it is top tier talent,” said Jackson. “Kids who have a really great chance of getting drafted, and if that’s the case, have a good chance of coming back to The Dell Diamond. There is a kid from Southwestern (D3 school), who throws upper 90s, we have a kid committed from the University of Oklahoma, you’re going to see some really quality talent. I think easily three quarters of this team has a good chance of playing professionally.”
It is a bold statement, but one that appears to be more than likely, not just when it comes to the Hairy Men, but every team in the league.
The season has been abbreviated due to nearly a month of scheduled play lost. The season will now be 30 games with games played nearly everyday except for Mondays. Come playoff time, which will begin on August 4th, the top two teams in each division will face off in a three game series. Once both of those series’ are decided, the two winners will move on to a single game, winner-take-all battle, for the TCL Championship.
In spite of a year in which college baseball was hardly even played, the Texas Collegiate League will soon provide a version of college baseball that is sure to excite fans across the state of Texas and around the nation. One of the only premier leagues to be playing their season in 2020, the level of talent seen on any given day in the TCL will begin to give a live look into what the 2021 college season will hold, and provide an atmosphere of college baseball that has been sorely missed so far this year.
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